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Poor People Get Burned

Renee from Womanist Musings has written a piece that explores the different vulnerability of the rich versus the poor (and the white versus the black) to natural disasters. She discusses the material costs and consequences -- being poor makes it harder to avoid harm from the disaster, and the disaster perpetuates the material poverty. But she also makes reference to the costs and consequences in terms of status and dignity -- for example, the way the label "looters" was placed on Katrina survivors and contributes to ongoing assumptions about the nature and causes of inequality. This latter aspect is something that academic disaster researchers have not given as much attention as it deserves. Disasters don't just expose, reconstruct, and reinforce material structures of society -- they also become sites for reconstructing the narratives we tell about how our society works.

My concern with her article is the conceit around which the rich-poor contrast is framed -- she writes of the current southern California fires as the rich people's disaster and Hurricane Katrina as the poor people's disaster. Framing wildfire as a disaster that mostly affects rich white people is hardly unique to Renee -- but it is inaccurate, and tends to erase the fate of poor people and people of color in the urban-wildland interface.

The urban-wildland interface -- the landscape of housing close to forests where our most disastrous wildfires take place -- is home to the very rich and the very poor. The current fires are threatening Oprah's neighborhood. But they also destroyed 500 mobile homes. The TV and movie stars get attention, because they're already plugged into the networks by which their fates are taken seriously by the society at large. But what happens to those mobile home dwellers, who don't even own a piece of land to rebuild on and many if not most of whom have no insurance? The vulnerability issues that Renee raises with respect to Katrina victims apply in the WUI as well (see, for example, this paper by Niemi and Lee).

Framing wildfire as a rich person's problem makes it easy to cast blame (though Renee does not take this direction). One significant discourse that circles around the wildfire issue is personal responsibility. Those morons shouldn't build their houses so close to the trees! We need to make the full cost of their actions apparent to them, for example through differential insurance rates, and then leave them to their fate (Roger Kennedy's recent Wildfire and Americans is a good book-length and more sophisticated treatment of this perspective). As Renee notes with respect to poor and black New Orleanians, such assumptions about personal responsibility require you to assume a certain level of wealth and privilege that may not be applicable. Oprah had her pick of the places in the country to live and the types of houses to live in, but what about, say, a single mother priced out of living downtown and now burdened with the extra cost of a car to commute to her minimum wage job (or less, if she's undocumented), and without the resources to invest in moving up the social ladder out of her current vulnerable situation?

What this brings us back to is that we need to see vulnerability to disasters as a problem of social organization, not just of individual behavior. A full political ecology of WUI fire vulnerability is beyond the scope of a blog post like this, but it would incorporate factors like local government subsidies to development, housing policies that affect low-income people and mobile homes, car-centric development, the decline of traditional rural livelihoods, lack of feasible opportunities in cities, and the inability of certain populations to access emergency services and aid, plus historical and ongoing land management and climate impacts -- and their deeper causes in contemporary governance, capitalism, and race relations.


Blogger Joel Monka said...

"One significant discourse that circles around the wildfire issue is personal responsibility. Those morons shouldn't build their houses so close to the trees!" I got corrected on this aspect by someone I know who lives out west. Environmental laws now forbid people from clearing firebreaks around homes and neighborhoods as they used to. THAT is the reason we have been hearing of fires consuming homes more than we used to- there actually are more houses burning than before, because they're not permitted to take the steps they did formerly to protect them. The rich and poor are equally vulnerable to such laws.

You'd think the Global Warming crowd would be all over the people at the National Forests... I read that just that one fire a few years back that burned up nine million acres of forest put more carbon in the air than a century of automobile use.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

I read that just that one fire a few years back that burned up nine million acres of forest put more carbon in the air than a century of automobile use.

Do you have a source for it? This sounds incredible to me. These fires have been going on since there were forests, but CO2 levels only started taking off after the Industrial Revolution.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

I'll have to look for it- it was a couple years ago. But remember that man's share of co2 is only 3% of the total in the first place, and in a dense forest there are many tons of carbon per acre- a single tree can go well over a ton, and a gallon of gas weighs only 6lbs.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

That's not true. Atmospheric CO2 is up 25-30% from pre-industrial levels. It's the highest in 20 million years.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

The Important Greenhouse Gases (except water vapor)
U.S. Department of Energy, (October, 2000) (1) (all concentrations expressed in parts per billion)

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Pre-industrial baseline 288,000
Natural additions 68,520
Man-made additions 11,880
Total (ppb) 568,400

5:19 PM  

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